“I know that the Church is true” strikes me as one of the most rankeling phrases that I heard in my early childhood. I desperately wanted to know that the Church was true, but I never could figure out precisely what it meant to know that it was true. The phrase held the promise that one day, if faithful enough, I would be initiated into knowledge of “the” truth. But in the meantime, it teased me for my lack of understanding. At the moment, I still can’t claim to understand precisely what the phrase means. But I have concluded that a substantial part of the phrase’s considerable use and power resides precisely in its lack of definable meaning.
Lately, I have been thinking about why we use the rhetoric and reasoning skills that we do, and I have concluded that we use the language and thinking skills that are most rewarded in the local contexts in which they apply. For example, English professors often consider texts and language to lack clear meaning, because their professional livelihoods depend on them uncovering new meanings and connections with a canonical text. This commits them to thinking that no one can easily determine what a text “means.” By contrast, a legislator wants to create language that is unambiguous, since society functions more smoothly when the rules are clear. Professionally and socially, they have incentives to minimize misunderstandings. What makes rhetoric and reasoning skills good is always a function of their suitability to local contexts and needs.
Similarly, I want to suggest that as members of the Church, we use rhetoric and reasoning in ways that promote certain priorities. The mode of rhetoric and reasoning that I think is most pervasive in Mormon culture is what I will term a “rhetoric of harmony.” For example, phrases like “I know the Church are true,” “the scriptures are the word of God,” or “family values” are in one sense empty phrases, since we never define what we mean by these terms; but their emptiness allows them to serve the purpose of creating harmony amongst members. Their very definitional meaninglessness makes them effective tools for glossing over differences between members, generations, and cultures who agree in the spirit the words express if not their meaning.
Since we commonly employ them more to signify our appreciation for and membership in the Church than to express something that carries clear meaning, they allow us to focus on our commonalities while avoiding potentially divisive debates about the specifics of what I suspect are our rather diverse beliefs. Similarly, one of our most common modes of reasoning is to ask how a scripture plucked from its textual and historical context applies to us today (example: we are now reading the D & C thematically rather than chronologically with an eye to historical context in Sunday School). This decision to gloss over history and remove the discussion from the text allows for multiple views to be harmoniously expressed without risking historical or factual conflicts. It creates a guise of continuitity in beliefs amongst the membership. Insofar as a primary aim of Church is to promote harmony and love amongst the community, these rhetorical and reasoning skills arguably promote that purpose well.
I say arguably, because the risk of rhetoric and reasoning that promotes harmony is that it alienates members who might not see harmony as the aim of religion. For members who understand religion to be, for example, more about a quest for better knowledge and understanding, the rhetoric of harmony often shuts down intellectual inquiry that by its nature tends to find problems with what we currently know. Since the rhetoric of harmony is largely composed of phrases that now recognizably signify membership in the LDS Church, members who might wish to adopt a rhetoric more suited towards inquiry and definitional meaningfulness also risk sounding un-Mormon in their language and thus disturbing harmony.
Assuming that our rhetoric and reasoning is in part a product of its compatibility with the goal of harmony and continuity in Church culture, I left to wonder to what extent we might now have an over-emphasis on harmony. (I think that organized religion might necessarily have a bias towards harmony, since organizational needs for consistency and growth favor harmony over unsettling intellectual innovation.) Does our rhetoric indicate that we value Church more for the harmony it brings to our life than the knowledge it gives us? Is this a consequences of individual or institutional needs? Can we adopt a rhetoric that promotes both harmony and inquiry without feeling that we are losing a vocabulary that is now essential to signifying one’s Mormoness?